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How To Handle Conflict With Your Spouse (In Front Of The Kids)

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By: Grant Stenzel MS Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

“My parents never fought.”

If you and I had a nickel for every time we’ve heard that, we could put our funds together and go on a Costco shopping spree. Dibs on the peanut butter pretzels.

To anyone who’s ever said “My parents never fought,” I say to you, “Yes they did.” They just did it behind closed doors. Parents who do this have good intentions, but this conflict cover-up can actually have an adverse effect. Why? Because when their kids grow up and have relationships of their own, imagine their dismay when conflict appears. “This is not how it’s supposed to be!” they think. “This must not be the right person for me. Time to break up and move on.”

Conflict, especially in a marriage, is part of life. Rather than sheltering our kids from it, they need to see conflict and its resolution firsthand. Seeing healthy fight navigation will help them to naturally address and overcome conflict when they get older. Alternatively, children seeing conflict that is not handled properly puts them at a higher risk of mirroring that behavior later in life.

Fighting in front of the kids might be new to you and your marriage. That’s understandable. You should know that it’s no good to anyone to rip the gloves off and start swinging. There are rules to follow. And here they are.

Rule 1: Prepare

Before the next fight happens, establish some ground rules to follow during arguments. Some examples include:

  • Before the fight, we should ask ourselves, “What am I feeling about this?”
  • We should call a timeout if things are getting too heated
  • If one of us is too tired, the other person shouldn’t insist on a fight
  • No insults, no labels, no violence
  • We should each have time to process and speak uninterrupted
  • Crying is okay
  • Let’s not forget to pray together

What ground rules are important to you? Talk with your spouse about it, and feel free to let the kids in on the brainstorm.

Rule 2: Relax

Shouting and anger can cause anxiety in your kids, but a calm fight helps them to feel confident about your relationship and the love in the house.

Rule 3: Protect

It’s very important not to take away your spouse’s power in front of the kids. A safe word is useful for these situations. When there was conflict between my wife and I in front of our children, we would use the word “cucumber” to signal each other if one of us felt our power was being taken away.

Rule 4: Respect

Obviously, this applies to your spouse. But it also applies to your kids. They’re smart. They see more than you think they do. Don’t make them wonder why Mom and Dad are acting weird. Let them in and don’t sugarcoat—they appreciate honesty. “We love each other very much. But we’re human, and humans make mistakes. So when that happens, it’s important that we talk things out so our marriage and our parenting can become stronger.”

When kids hear something that real and honest from their parents, it’s a game-changer. Instantly, they’ll be better equipped to handle arguments in their future relationships.